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America can’t afford the Amtrak train fantasy

by Robert J. Samuelson

The Washington Post

There is something about Amtrak — perhaps the romance of railroads or the promise of relieving traffic congestion and economizing on oil and greenhouse gas emissions — that causes otherwise sensible people to lose contact with reality.

The reality is that Amtrak is a waste of taxpayers’ money and has been since its creation in 1970. It doesn’t significantly reduce congestion, fuel use or greenhouse gases. Amtrak is too small to have any appreciable effect in these areas.

Yet, Amtrak retains an aura of respectability with much of the public and many “experts,” who believe it should survive and, perhaps, expand.

The latest example is a report from the Brookings Institution, one of Washington’s premier think tanks. The report points out that Amtrak’s 2012 ridership of 31 million was a record and that some of its most heavily traveled routes have an operating profit (what Brookings calls a “positive operating balance”). Amtrak is undergoing a “renaissance,” said Brookings. It adds: “Passenger rail is a vital component of the country’s national transportation network.”

Actually, it isn’t.

To see why, dissect that historic ridership of 31 million. The number looks impressive, but on any given day, it’s about 85,000. Not much. Even if it doubled, it wouldn’t be much. Domestic airline passengers total about 650 million annually; that’s 1.8 million a day. More important are the 140 million Americans who commute daily to work, about 85 percent of whom drive. And then there’s personal, vacation and pleasure driving. If Amtrak vanished, hardly anyone would notice except Amtrak’s workers and its small number of daily riders.

Before World War II, intercity rail passenger service flourished. But postwar changes caused rapid decline. Air travel was faster and cheaper for long distances. Suburbanization hurt shorter trips, because travelers usually needed cars to get to their final destinations. Passenger losses mounted for railroads, imperiling their essential freight operations.

In 1970, Congress let railroads abandon intercity passenger service by creating Amtrak, which would become profitable by preserving the most promising routes. That was the theory. It hasn’t worked.

Still, it can be argued that some passenger trains should be saved if they can pay their own way. The Brookings report notes approvingly that some heavily traveled routes — led by the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, which represents about half of Amtrak’s revenue — more than cover their operating costs. In 2011, the surplus was a hefty $205 million, says Brookings.

The Brookings study inspired media stories suggesting that Amtrak might be profitable if it dropped its losing routes. Amtrak’s problem, according to this view, is that it must include many uneconomic long-distance trains — for example, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco — for political reasons. Legislators from other regions wouldn’t support train service confined mostly to the Northeast. Most long-distance trains have big operating deficits. In 2011, the Zephyr’s was $63 million.

The trouble is that “operating” costs is a limited concept. It covers labor and fuel expenses of running trains but excludes many other costs: most importantly, Amtrak’s costs of acquiring passenger cars and locomotives, and also major improvements to tracks and bridges. It’s unclear whether any Amtrak routes would be profitable if all costs were included. Amtrak’s annual federal subsidy has recently totaled about $1.5 billion.

Amtrak is a prime candidate for the budget guillotine. Deficit reduction should focus on programs that are unneeded, ineffective or wasteful, lessening the pressure on more valuable activities — say, scientific research, border patrols, Head Start and others.

Choices need to be made. Sure: If some Amtrak routes can stand on their own, let them be privatized. Sure: If states and localities want to subsidize rail projects — including high-speed rail — let them. After all, the benefits of most transportation projects (roads, mass transit, rails) are local.

But the federal government should leave the train business. And it is a business, not a public service, because private markets already provide what Amtrak is selling. Almost anyone riding Amtrak can find other ways to travel (car, plane, bus). The fact that a program so weak has so many defenders is yet more evidence why our budget debates are stuck.

© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

  • Bruce

    to me the Amtrak is the only way to go. its he only transportation system that treats you like a person, it is also a very enjoyable ride. the us subsidizes airports, and the interstate system. we should give some extra money to use in advertising for Amtrak. most people don’t think of taking a train because they never hear about it

  • Chuck

    If Mr. Samuelson thinks Amtrak is bad he should take a look at what the proposition that brain dead California voters approved a couple of years ago — the train from nowhere to nowhere. From Fresno to Santa Clarita at a speed that will take about an hour and a half longer than it takes to drive the same distance. And what is worse, despite loud complaints about it, Governor Moonbeam McBrown seems determined to push ahead with this very expensive white elephant

  • http://twitter.com/YukariSakamoto Yukari Sakamoto坂本ゆかり

    Spoiled by Japanese trains I was appalled at my first ride on the Amtrak from NYC to Philadelphia. Dirty trains, staff from the ticket to counter to the train are not helpful or polite. I dread having to ride Amtrak.

    But in Japan, we look forward to riding the long journey trains. The trains are clean, even the bathrooms on the trains are immaculate. There are lots of options for food to buy and eat on the train. And staff all along the way are courteous.

    Amtrak needs to start by making the journey a pleasant one.

  • johnny cassidy

    One point five billion is a bargain when you consider the annual US federal subsidies to airlines and automakers, not to mention all the bailouts over the years. The money American taxpayers fork over for track work is nothing compared to how much they spend on highways. They could sidestep any possible economic train wreck by making the auto industry foot the bill for the roadways their cars run on. If the US leveled the transportation field, it could go a long way to getting its economy and more back on track while enabling taxpayers to really weigh the merits of Amtrak. Why shift the scales and make Amtrak pay the price for the free ride Detroit and the airlines have been getting for years? That’s no way to run a railroad or an economy.